Strangers in the land: outreach to refugees



The stranger who dwells among you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. – Leviticus 19:34 (New King James Version)

TAMPA -- The stream of Middle Eastern refugees pouring into Europe has made headlines around the world. In September, a shocking photo of a Syrian boy who drowned as his family tried to flee to Greece galvanized international attention to the plight of the refugees. 

Refugees are now trickling into Florida, and Hyde Park UMC is working to get resources flowing to help meet local refugee families’ needs.

“Our church really wanted to step up and welcome the stranger,” said Rev. Vicki Walker, Hyde Park’s minister of missions and outreach. 

After calling various Tampa Bay organizations that focus on refugee resettlement, Hyde Park began working with Coptic Orthodox Charities, taking six refugee families in Hillsborough County under its wing.

The church held a kickoff meeting Sunday, Feb. 7, introducing members of four refugee families – from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria – to several dozen Hyde Park members.

Retired Ambassador Douglas McElhaney addresses Hyde Park UMC group
Retired U.S. Ambassador Douglas McElhaney, who served in Bosnia and Herzegovina for four years, tell a Hyde Park UMC audience about the challenges facing refugees and immigrants in a foreign land. Photo by Susan Ladika.

The families were welcomed by retired U.S. Ambassador Douglas McElhaney of St. Petersburg, a career diplomat who served as ambassador to Bosnia and Herzegovina from 2004 to 2007.

“I lived all my life in foreign cultures,” McElhaney told the families. “It takes a long time to feel your feet on the ground.”

He reminded them, “This is a country of immigrants,” and noted that the ancestors of many of today’s Americans came here to escape poverty or political persecution, or to find religious freedom. 

“I compliment the Methodist church for the things it is doing to help people,” McElhaney said. 

Florida Gov. Rick Scott sent a letter to Congress in November, trying to prevent the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the state following the highly publicized terrorist attacks in Paris. 

Almost 50,000 refugees came to Florida during the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, and almost 95 percent of those came from Cuba, according to the Florida Department of Children and Families. Just 104 came from Syria, along with 304 from Iraq and 154 from Afghanistan.

“My ministry isn’t just to United Methodists who look like me and talk like me, but to all children around the world,” Walker said. 

The refugees who come to the United States face a strict vetting process, and it takes 18 to 24 months for them to be resettled here. 

Coptic Orthodox Charities helped arrange Social Security cards, Medicaid, food stamps, school registrations and English courses for the families Hyde Park is assisting, while Lutheran Services Florida is aiding in their job hunt, said Kathy Ollivier, who is helping to spearhead Hyde Park’s efforts.

While the families receive assistance initially, they quickly are on their own. Depending on the program they are with, they receive aid for just three to six months, then are expected to support themselves, plus reimburse the federal government for their airfare to the United States, Ollivier said. 

That means it’s imperative that they find jobs, which is no easy task, Ollivier said. 

Panel of refugees listen to an interpreter tell their story
A ministry group at Hyde Park UMC, Tampa, listen to an interpreter tell the story of one of four men whose families are seeking refuge in the Tampa Bay area. Photo by Susan Ladika.

The men of four refugee families spoke to Hyde Park members, and all emphasized their desire to find good-paying work so they could support their families.

Sajjad Wali, who spent nine years working for the U.S. military in Afghanistan as an interpreter and cultural adviser, now works as a convenience store clerk.

Wali was targeted by the Taliban for his work with the U.S. military and eventually had to flee his homeland to protect himself and his extended family. His father “was beaten for what I’ve done,” Wali said, and his younger brother was shot and injured. 

“I left my dream house, which I worked hard for and built,” he said, describing how he hid in the mountains while his house was ransacked. “My crime was supporting the U.S. Army.”

Ali Mousa, an experienced heating and air-conditioning technician in Iraq, also had to flee with his family after his home was attacked due to his work for U.S. and international forces in Baghdad. 

“We don’t have a country anymore; it’s a ghost town,” added Jasim Alzankanawi, an Iraqi who is a skilled woodworker and furniture restorer. 

Mohammad Msallam and his family also fled destruction and devastation in their hometown of Aleppo, Syria. The clothing factory owner feared his children would be killed or recruited into the fighting, so they headed to Turkey. He had expected to return home but now has lost everything he once owned. 

Alzankanawi and Msallam have been in the U.S. only a couple of months and currently study English.

Walker said it’s a catch-22. The men must work to support their families but need to learn English so they can get decent jobs. 

Along with their quest for work, the families need a host of other assistance, such as tutoring for the children, practice in speaking English for the adults and outings for the family. 

“Together we can figure this all out,” Walker said.

For information on how to help, contact Walker at vwalker@hydeparkumc.org or (813) 253-5388, ext. 223.

– Susan Ladika is a freelance writer based in Tampa.


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